Monday, April 27, 2009

Pistons' wasted season comes to an ugly conclusion


If you're a Pistons fan and you thought the end of the past four seasons since the 2004 championship were frustrating, you were spoiled.


Because the end of this Pistons campaign had to be the epitome of frustrating for anyone associated with the franchise. Detroit had it string of six straight Eastern Conference finals appearances snapped in ugly fashion, getting swept by the Cavaliers in a completely one-sided series.

All the games were decided by double figures. None of them, really, were ever in doubt. Even when the Pistons were in a game, it was usually because likely NBA MVP LeBron James was on Cleveland's bench getting a nice, long rest before coming back in to finish the job.

Detroit was the first team eliminated from the playoffs, which technically makes sense. After all, it had the worst regular-season record of the 16 teams and was playing against the team with the league's best mark.

If anything, the nine-day series -- which probably could have taken place in about six days and saved everyone a few wasted ones -- proved that as long as the 82-game regular season is, it shouldn't be taken for granted.

Throughout the season, we kept hearing the Pistons say that they didn't think they were far from becoming a good team, from developing a strong chemistry. I guess talk is cheap (I think I've heard that before).

What actually happened -- what actually matters -- is that the group of players led by rookie coach Michael Curry and second-year point guard Rodney Stuckey, who is more of a hybrid, never clicked. Never. Sure, there were a couple minor winning streaks, but no groove was ever found.

And that's what is needed to be a good playoff team. That's what is needed in playoff games, when things aren't necessarily going well, to turn momentum in your favor.

These Pistons never found that.

That's what has to be frustrating to everybody associated with the team.

And they underachived, plain and simple.

It's easy to point to the trade of Chauncey Billups to the Denver Nuggets for Allen Iverson as the main reason the Pistons fell apart, and that certainly hurt the team -- especially considering Iverson never fit in the rotation and then was lost for the season to a purported back injury.

But even sans Billups, this team should have been better than the eighth seed in the East. This team should have been a middle seed that at least got close to making the second round.

Consider the players on the Pistons who were a part of many, if not all, of those conference finals runs -- Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Antonio McDyess in the starting lineup.

Those four, plus Stuckey and an improved bench, should have been enough for the Pistons.

But Curry struggled mightily to develop the team sans Billups, and the veterans simply didn't play up to their capabilities.

Hamilton had a hot streak after Iverson went out, but he didn't maintain it down the stretch. And Wallace and Prince simply often didn't show up to do what they were supposed to.

Curry deserves a lot of blame, but the Pistons veterans should have known what they had to do to make the team successful. Heck, they're almost as old as Curry.

What it boils down to is a lost season, a season that needs to be forgotten by the organization as quickly as possible and moved on from.

And now, really, it is clear that changes are needed.

That was the rhetoric after each of the last couple years ended in the conference finals, and that talk probably helped fuel the Billups-Iverson deal. And look how that worked out.

This season proved that when you have something pretty good -- not perfect, but very solid -- you need to really think before breaking off a big piece of it.

Now Joe Dumars needs to break off some more pieces -- mainly Wallace and Iverson -- and try to build up a consistent winner again. It's almost akin to the job he originally inherited.

Is Prince unmovable? I wouldn't think so. What about Stuckey? Can he run the point for an NBA championship team? That's another question to consider.

A long, busy offseason looms for Dumars and his aides.

And it must be welcoming, considering the way this lost season went.

Friday, April 17, 2009

2009 NBA playoffs preview: It's the Lakers' turn


I know this will only feed the conspiracy theorists' appetites, but I think the Los Angeles Lakers will win the NBA title in June because, well, it's their turn.

Great reasoning, huh?

But, c'mon, do you really want another X's and O's breakdown, another mind-numbing analysis of the Triangle Offense, another "Lamar Odom is the X-factor" column?

Didn't think so.

Rather, before I delve into my picks for each playoff series, consider this: When was the last time that the team we all expected to win the title didn't?

Last year, the rejuvenated Celtics were the clear choice.

In 2007, we all knew the veteran Spurs were the class of a Western Conference that was about 187 times better than the East.

In 2006, it was a bit shocking to see the Heat come back to beat the West's Mavericks in six games. But there was no debating that Miami was the best the East had to offer, so there was only one upset involved.

The'05 Spurs were the class of the West and beat an equally good Pistons team in seven games.

And, finally, we are back to the Lakers. Everyone outside of the Motor City expected the '04 team to demolish an under-the-radar Pistons squad in the Finals. Of course, that was very far from the case as Detroit cruised in five games.

So what's different about this favored L.A. squad? Well, a lot. To be brief, it's not made up of a grumpy couple (Kobe and Shaq) and a pair of old stars (Karl Malone and Gary Payton) trying one last time to earn a ring.

More importantly, it's a team that's been together now for a couple years and is cohesive. Bryant has developed from a selfish player into a great team leader. And he's got plenty of help.

Next year, it'll be Cleveland's turn. But this time around, the Larry O'Brien trophy is headed back to the West Coast.


Eastern Conference
No. 1 Cleveland def. No. 8 Detroit (5 games): The Pistons are capable of beating Cleveland — maybe once or twice. Cleveland, on the other hand, has shown it's far from just "potential" this season.

No. 2 Boston def. No. 7 Chicago (6 games): The Celtics, most likely minus K.G., will have to rely on their championship grit against an up-and-coming Bulls unit.

No. 3 Orlando def. No. 6 Philadelphia (6 games): The Magic are still learning how to win tough games, which is why this series will take longer than it should.

No. 4 Atlanta def. No. 5 Miami (7 games): What a series this will be, but D-Wade won't be able to carry his Heat in a Game 7 away from South Beach.

Western Conference
No. 1 Los Angeles def. No. 8 Utah (5 games): The Jazz are too good at home to be swept, but the Lakers are too good — period — to give the Utah faithful much hope.

No. 7 New Orleans def. No. 2 Denver (6 games): Yes, Denver is a much better team with Chauncey Billups as opposed to Allen Iverson. But the best player in the series, Chris Paul, will ultimately be the difference.

No. 3 San Antonio def. No. 6 Dallas (7 games): I can't wait for this series. It will be the most dramatic of the first round, but experience and savvy will push the Spurs into the next round.

No. 4 Portland def. No. 5 Houston (6 games): Should be another competitive series. I love the Blazers, especially at home, with the waves of explosive players they can throw at an opponent.


Eastern Conference
No. 1 Cleveland def. No. 4 Atlanta (6 games): Winning in Atlanta, as the Celtics know, is like playing Guitar Hero blind — not easy. But having LeBron James helps Cleveland's cause, and Mo Williams will be a difference-maker.

No. 2 Boston def. No. 3 Orlando (7 games): I want to believe in the Magic, especially if the Celts don't have Garnett, but I'm just not to that point yet — not against the defending champions. Expect big things from Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.

Western Conference
No. 1 Los Angeles def. No. 4 Portland (6 games): The up-and-down, back-and-fourth action in this series will have ABC, ESPN and TNT execs salivating. The games will be high-scoring, the drama palpable! But only one team has Kobe Bryant.

No. 7 New Orleans def. No. 3 San Antonio: And so they meet again. As you may remember, a year ago the Spurs came back from the dead to shock the young, impressionable Hornets in seven games. This time New Orleans, with everybody on board, will prove to be more resilient.


Eastern Conference
No. 1 Cleveland def. No. 2 Boston (5 games): Sorry, Celtics, but your magic runs out here. They'll win Game 3 to make it 2-1, but James will have one of his special games in Game 4 to send the series back to Cleveland 3-1. And I think Boston fans are familiar with teams as dominant at home as the Cavs have been.

No. 1 Los Angeles def. No. 7 New Orleans (5 games): The Hornets' special, unpredictable playoff run ends here. The Lakers simply have too many big bodies for them to handle, and Bryant won't even have to score big for his team to get back to the Finals.


Los Angeles def. Cleveland (6 games): And we return to the conspiracy theorists. Because, c'mon, what casual fan — not to mention David Stern — isn't rooting for a Kobe-LeBron showdown on the NBA's biggest stage? But bottom line — these are the two best teams in the league.

And usually — not always, but most of the time — the best advance.

It'll be an entertaining series dominated by the homecourt teams, but after three straight wins in L.A., the Lakers will smell blood and find a way to finish off the Cavs on their home floor.

Bryant will be MVP, Pau Gasol will be Mr. Steady, Odom will make the hustle plays and Derek Fisher will hit the killer 3s.

Sounds kind of like last year, doesn't it? (Just insert Pierce, Garnett, Kendrick Perkins and James Posey).

Sure, the end result will be all too predictable.

But the long ride through the playoffs to the final ceremony will take plenty of unexpected turns.

Let the real NBA season commence.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tiger-Phil 'rivalry' finally lives up to the hype (kind of)


Finally, Sunday afternoon, the network execs at CBS got exactly what they wanted.

Tiger Woods. Phil Mickelson. Going head to head on the back nine for a major championship.

Well, kind of.

But first, let's backtrack for a minute...

Anyone who follows golf even a little bit — or knows who Tiger Woods is — is aware that there is no one on the PGA Tour with his resume, no modern golfer who will ever be considered on the same level as Woods.

However, that doesn't mean that people haven't tried to create a rival, doing something to spike interest in the sport. (As if watching likely the greatest golfer of all time isn't enough.)

Some "recruits" for this position have come and passed. There was David Duval, who famously flamed out years ago. There was the young, inflammatory Sergio Garcia, who gave Woods one good challenge — and lost. There have been a couple others.

But the one name that has always been linked to Woods since he more than "burst onto the scene" at the 1997 Masters is Mickelson.

Why? Well, Phil is a likable guy. And he's a great talent. Not a Tiger talent, but a talent capable of great things. He proved that early on with his knack for making impossible chip shots seem routine.

He was the perfect guy to be Bird as Tiger acts Magic.

So, thus, a rivalry was born. Except that it really wasn't.

And instead of Bird-Magic, we've gotten more like Shaq-Chris Webber.

Yeah, you get the point.

Don't get me wrong — Mickelson has had his moments. He finally won his first major at the '03 Masters, after Woods had accumulated eight, and has since added another Green Jacket and a PGA championship.

But he is C-Webb while Woods is O'Neal.

And besides the difference in championships and personal accomplishments (O'Neal has four NBA titles and an MVP, Webber has none of either), what else stands out about the two No. 1 draft picks?

Well, nothing. They battled back and forth in one great Western Conference finals playoff series in 2001, which was won by O'Neal and the Lakers. Besides that, no rivalry.

That, basically, is what the connection between Woods and Mickelson was before Sunday afternoon at August. Believe it or not, it's the truth.

The major networks would have you thinking otherwise, considering the hype they give to the world's top two golfers — although Mickelson hasn't always been No. 2 during Woods' reign atop the sport— before every major.

There's always talk about a final pairing on Sunday featuring the two of them. The talking heads love to romance about the possibility of a Tiger-Phil head-to-head battle.

Yet, that was never really the case until Sunday.

At the 2002 U.S. Open, Mickelson was the runner-up behind Woods. But he finished three strokes back of him and wasn't even in the final group with him.

And in golf, there can't really be a "rivalry" on the course unless the golfers are paired together, walking the 18 holes alongside each other and watching each other's every single shot.

Finally, Sunday, that came to fruition.

And Woods and Mickelson put on quite the show. They both began the round at 4-under par, a whopping seven shots behind the leaders. They played about five holes ahead of said leaders.

Mickelson didn't waste any time in playing himself into contention, setting a Masters record for the final round by shooting 30 on the front nine. Woods didn't have his touch early, but he got himself into consideration with an eagle on the eighth hole.

And, waddya know, by the time they made the turn, there was a mob of fans the size of a small country following them — the guys atop the leader board be damned.

I don't blame the fans one bit. They were watching the world's top two golfers playing near the top of their games.

If only it had lasted.

The story had far from a perfect ending. "Lefty" got within a shot of the lead only to hit an awful tee shot into the water at the par-3 12th and miss two short putts down the stretch. Woods couldn't knock in a putt longer than 10 feet all day and killed any last chance he had by whacking his approach shot into a tree on the 18th.

Soon thereafter, Woods and Mickelson's day on the course was complete — with Phil finishing a shot better but still three back of the leaders.

And for a minute at least, I felt like turning off the TV. I felt like all the adrenaline had left the tournament.

Of course I didn't do that, and ended up viewing quite a hectic, dramatic finish that ended with Angel Cabrera winning his second major in a two-hole playoff.

But the excitement on the course, in the gallery, was never more palpable than during the height of Woods and Mickelson's attack on Augusta.

It was a taste of what a "rivalry" could actually be like.

Not that I'm calling it that at this point.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

My belated, quick-hitting 2009 baseball preview


As is the case every year, this is a crazy week in the blogosphere.

Through late Monday night, I was busy following the conclusion of the college hoops season and then witnessing the bonfire action on Franklin Street.

And beginning this afternoon, just like that, golf is relevant again with Tiger back on the scene at Augusta to try to reclaim the Green Jacket.

But before I immerse myself in Tiger Talk, I think there's something I need to get out of the way before it's forgotten...

Yes, the 2009 baseball season is underway. And please forgive me for picking my division winners after some teams have played as many as three games.

Because while the N.Y. tabloids are ready to give up on the 0-2 Yankees, I'm not quite at that point — not yet (although read below to really find out).

So without further ado, and before more games are played, here's my one-sentence-per-team preview — a quick enough read that you can fit it in after lunch and before Tiger's opening tee shot this afternoon.

*Indicates Wild Card team

AL East
1. Tampa Bay Rays 93-69: Go ahead and doubt the division's youngest contending team that didn't lose any valuable assets from a year ago.
*2. Boston Red Sox 91-71: Injuries could be a real problem for this veteran-loaded club, but I'm banking on them staying just healthy enough to grab a second consecutive Wild Card berth.
3. New York Yankees 90-72: Yep, that's right, no playoffs for the aging Bronx Bombers who won't be able to handle the enormous pressure come September.
4. Baltimore Orioles 78-84: This team is young and improving and will score plenty of runs.
5. Toronto Blue Jays 75-87: Poor, Roy Halladay, left with no help around him.

AL Central
1. Minnesota Twins 88-74: Nothing will come easy in this division, but the Twins can always be counted on to contend in September and they'll be the survivor this time around.
2. Chicago White Sox 86-76: I love the young pitching, I love the young infield, but can the veterans hold up their end of the bargain?
3. Detroit Tigers 80-82: The lineup should be fine, but that won't be enough to offset unpredictable starting pitching and a downright scary (not in a good way) bullpen and get back to winning ways.
4. Cleveland Indians 78-84: Their lineup is no longer frightening, and I don't expect Cliff Lee to repeat his remarkable Cy Young season.
5. Kansas City Royals 77-85: They could be the biggest surprise in baseball; I say give them a another year.

AL West
1. Los Angeles Angels 95-67: They lost their closer and arguably best hitter, but that won't stop them from breezing to another division title.
2. Oakland A's 83-79: All of a sudden the lineup appears kind of lethal, but what to make of a very raw pitching staff?
3. Texas Rangers 77-85: Oh, they'll score plenty of runs all right (what's new?), but they'll also give up plenty of runs (again, what's new?).
4. Seattle Mariners 75-87: It won't be the disaster of a year ago and Griffey Jr. will help fill some seats, but the bullpen will ultimately undo the M's in this weak division.

*Indicates Wild Card team

NL East
1. New York Mets 93-69: There will be no last-day drama this time, thanks to that revamped bullpen and no glaring weaknesses.
*2. Philadelphia Phillies 90-72: It won't be easy getting back into the postseason, but team-wide unity and reliable closer Brad Lidge will help as the Phils come together to win close games down the stretch.
3. Florida Marlins 88-74: The young, fun Fish will bash tons of home runs and see improvement from their pitchers only to fall short of the playoffs with a lackluster defense.
4. Atlanta Braves 87-75: The Braves will bounce back with a solid year, but the veteran arms in the rotation can't be relied on to get them back to where they expect to be.
5. Washington Nationals 65-97: It's hard not to believe this lowly team will avoid 100 losses, but that's the only disaster they will stay away from.

NL Central
1. Chicago Cubs 95-67: The Cubs will take advantage of their weak, large division thanks to one of the game's most underrated hitters — and a new addition for them — Milton Bradley.
2. Milwaukee Brewers 79-83: Their lineup should produce plenty of runs, but minus Sabathia and Sheets, who's going to rack up the innings?
3. Houston Astros 78-84: It's almost forgotten how good this team was during the second half of last season before being displaced by the hurricane; they won't be as good, but decent.
4. St. Louis Cardinals 77-85: Tony La Russa is worth maybe five wins, but he can't make up for an unpredictable and lacking starting rotation and bullpen.
5. Cincinnati Reds 76-86: There will be plenty of sparks, thanks to young flamethrowers Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto and young sluggers Joey Votto and Jay Bruce.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates 62-100: It's a shame they're wasting what's purportedly one of the nicest modern stadiums with such a perennially awful team.

NL West
1. Los Angeles Dodgers 96-66: It's amazing how quickly Mr. Ramirez has helped transform this lineup into a scary-good one from top to bottom.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks 81-81: There's still enough pitching — if the hurlers stay healthy — to be mildly competitive, but not to go toe to toe with the Dodgers who tout way more offense.
3. San Fransisco Giants 78-84: A strong pitching rotation and a couple good, young bats will make for a better team than a year ago.
4. Colorado Rockies 74-88: Oh, how long ago the special 2007 season appears now; mediocrity is again king at Coors Field.
5. San Diego Padres 68-94: They could do better if they hold onto Jake Peavy at the trading deadline, but that wouldn't be smart considering they won't be contending for anything for at least a couple years.

OK, those are all the prognostications for now. With the snow just starting to melt up north, I can't even begin thinking about the playoffs. I'll save that for another day.

Now back to the golf...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Championship game prediction: Picking the Tar Heels


Making this pick was far from easy. It was akin to choosing between peppermint and coffee ice cream — I love 'em both.

But when it came down to it, the peppermint simply has more flair than the coffee. Both have valuable attributes, but the peppermint's are just a little more capable.

Ya dig?

Well if you don't, this is what your bumbling writer is getting at: As good as the Michigan State Spartans are and as good as they're playing, the North Carolina Tar Heels are simply a little bit (a hair or two) better — and they've shown that throughout the NCAA Tournament.

Basically, the Heels can go out and play a decent game — like they did Saturday against Villanova — and still win if the Spartans are mediocre (as the Wildcats were). MSU, on the other hand, has to play a good game to win Monday night. Anything less will result in a loss.

If UNC plays its best, forgetaboutit.

So write down this score for me, but make sure to note that I'm not entirely confident in it.

North Carolina 84, Michigan State 75.

How could it be different X's and O's wise?

Well, if the Spartans can slow down ACC player of the year Ty Lawson. I think that's possible, considering how well Travis Walton has defended recently. Against Connecticut, he helped hold stud guard A.J. Price to 5-of-20 shooting and a minimal impact on the game.

If Lawson isn't his typical dominant self, that affects all the Heels.

The Spartans could also gain an advantage through their bench play. In the win over the Huskies, Korie Lucious was a huge difference-maker with 11 points. Durrell Summers added 10 and Draymond Green had eight, and the bench outscored UConn's by a ridiculous 33-7 margin.

The Heels have athletic big man Ed Davis on their bench, and he provides them with a good defensive presence and some rebounds. But he's not a scorer. Outside of him, only Bobby Frasor occasionally scores off the Heels bench.

So another strong effort by the Spartans reserves could make a huge difference.

And finally, there's the homecourt advantage. Not too much should be made of it since this is the national title game. We know the Heels won't be fazed by the extremely pro-MSU crowd inside Ford Field.

But the fans will help the Spartans if they get down. Fans will rise to their feet in an attempt to exhilarate their Spartans, get them back in the game. That can help a team find that last ounce of energy, that last push, when the players need it.

So there are a lot of reasons to believe the Spartans might pull their third straight upset of a No. 1 seed Monday night and set off a wild celebration in a state that desperately needs it.

There are just a couple more trustworthy reasons, however, to count on the Heels fulfilling their only real goal of the season.

I mentioned Lawson who, you know, is pretty darn good. No one's stopped him yet in the tournament. Walton has one heck of a task ahead of him.

Then there's Tyler Hansbrough, who you can bet will make the most of his final college game in what's seemed like a career spanning centuries. He'll, most likely, have another quiet but efficient night.

But perhaps most importantly, the Heels have two reliable 3-point shooters and, most importantly, clutch performers outside of the attention-grabbing Lawson.

Wayne Ellington is playing the best basketball of his career by far, and if he's left open he'll knock down dagger-like 3s. No MSU outside shooter can be counted on as much as Ellington.

And then there's senior Danny Green, who has become Mr. Big Shot for the Heels. He struggled at the beginning of the postseason in the ACC tournament and first couple games of the Big Dance, but he's rediscovered his shooting stroke at the right time.

Against Villanova, Green's two huge 3s — sandwiched around a Lawson layup — kept the feisty 'Cats at bay when they had cut what appeared an insurmountable deficit down to five points early in the second half.

Green killed their spirit with two flicks of his right wrist.

I'm banking on him, and Ellington, pulling off similar acts against the Spartans.

And while MSU has all the pieces of a national-title team assembled, they don't fit as smoothly together as North Carolina's do right now. They haven't been together as long as the Heels main cogs have.

The Spartans, if they avoid early departures to the NBA, might go out and win the thing next year.

But since October, this has been North Carolina's year. This has been the Heels destiny.

They seem too sturdy to fall a game short of accomplishing their long-awaited main objective.

And that's why, after 38 games, they'll finally get to celebrate without having to worry about a next task on their seemingly never-ending journey to the top of the college hoops world.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Final Four underdogs can win thanks to the 3-pointer


Let's not kid ourselves. No one is surprised that UConn and North Carolina are in Detroit today for the Final Four.

That's what we were projecting back in October. And three weeks ago before the NCAA Tournament, although many of us (yep, this guy included) thought Memphis might spoil the Huskies' bid.

The other pair of teams left in the Big Dance, however, weren't exactly favorites to make it this far. Not Michigan State, which had flown under the radar all season after getting blown off the floor by the Tar Heels in early December in the same venue — Ford Field — in which they'll play Saturday.

The Spartans had to continuously silent doubters after that, game by game until they "upset" No. 1 seed Louisville last Sunday. Now, playing just 90 miles from East Lansing, they're underdogs once again.

But not as big underdogs as the Wildcats of Villanova, who have to take on the mighty Heels — the team almost given the title before the season even began. Who, outside of Philly, is picking the 'Cats to advance to their first title game since 1985?

Um, no one.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves in predicting a battle of the big boys Monday night in Motown. Yes, UNC and UConn are the better, more talented teams. They "should" win.

But they might not. I, for one, wouldn't be surprised one bit.

After all, there's a big equalizer for the pair of underdogs.

The 3-pointer.

Look at the Tar Heels' four losses to date. When they were shocked at home by Boston College, the Eagles made nine 3s. Wake Forest was a terrible outside shooting team, but it shot 6-for-14 from the perimeter.

The main reason Maryland came back from a huge second-half deficit to upset the Heels? The Terrapins made 13 of 30 from behind the arc. And Florida State was 8-of-20 from downtown in its ACC Tournament win (although UNC was without its best player, Ty Lawson).

The bottom line is this: If Villanova makes its outside shots, it can win this game.

A lot was made after the Heels' 72-60 win over Oklahoma last Sunday to win the South region about how much of an improved defensive team they are. And don't get me wrong — they are better on that end of the floor than they were in January, when the Demon Deacons' Jeff Teague penetrated at will against the Heels.

They're better at guarding the basket, especially with freshman Ed Davis playing a bigger role. I'll give them that.

But they're not any better at guarding the 3-point arc. The bottom line to take from last weekend is this: Oklahoma's guards didn't show up to play. They missed wide-open 3 after wide-open 3, bricking their first 15 from deep.

A few made 3s, and that could have been a different game.

Villanova might not have a Blake Griffin to garner defenders' attention, but it will get plenty of open looks. That's because the Wildcats have a pair of guards in Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher who can penetrate the lane and create open outside shots for teammates.

Now, the Wildcats will have to step up and make 3s.

If they make 10 or more, I think they'll win the game. I'm not kidding.

The same can be said for the Spartans, who have an even better chance of pulling the upset.

Their biggest weapon might not look like a 3-point shooter, however. No one would expect, from looking at 6-foot-10 Goran Suton, that he'd have a smooth stroke from the perimeter.

But that's exactly what he demonstrated in the Spartans' masterful domination of Louisville last Sunday. Against the Cardinals' 2-3 zone, Suton three times stepped outside the paint and swished 3s.

He got open looks because defenders were uncomfortable guarding him 20 feet away from the basket. Suton's 3s sparked Michigan State's game-clinching run in the second half.

A benefactor was Durrell Summers, who connected on back-to-back 3s during the spurt. He's not short himself, at 6-4, and elevates over his defenders to shoot. Another dangerous weapon for underdog Sparty.

If Michigan State does what it did against Louisville — when it shot 8-for-16 from 3-point range — it can beat the Huskies. If Suton pulls his defenders away from the basket and makes 3s, UConn will have its issues.

Of course, there's another factor: If the favorites make just as many 3s, they could take away that advantage.

But the underdogs, to me, play much better defense on the perimeter. Consider what the Wildcats did against Duke, a good 3-point shooting team. They forced the Blue Devils into 5-of-27 shooting from behind the arc. They rattled them.

Don't expect the Heels to get a whole bunch of open 3s.

The Spartans are quietly, possibly the best defensive team in the country. They've only given up 70-plus points once since mid-January. And they rebound well.

Those attributes, along with a handful of 3s, could land them in the national title game.

Where they could face Villanova, believe it or not.

Am I predicting two surprises? I wouldn't go that far.

But I wouldn't be shocked, not at all, if we see an upset or two tonight.

Thanks to the great equalizer, the 3-point shot.